Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Swords in the Mist by Fritz Leiber



One bad novella spoils the bunch
Swords in the Mist, originally published in 1968, is a collection of sword-and-sorcery fiction by sci-fi author Fritz Leiber. This is the third in a series of books featuring Leiber’s recurring characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The former is a big, burly swordsman of Nordic extraction; the latter is a sly and slender thief known for his speed, agility, and cunning. I first read Swords in the Mist back in junior high. It inspired fond enough memories that when I discovered Open Road Media was offering inexpensive ebooks of this series, I decided to reread it for nostalgia’s sake. Four of the stories in this book were previously published between 1947 and 1964 in Fantastic Science Fiction Stories magazine. The other two entries are brief interludes written by Leiber expressly for this collection. They serve as segues between the meatier tales, in an attempt to establish some continuity to the duo’s adventures.

Although one of the stories is set in ancient times on Earth, most of the selections in the Swords series take place in the fictional world of Nehwon and it’s main city of Lankhmar. The best story in this volume is “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” which I still recalled fondly from having read it over 30 years ago. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser take a temporary break from each other’s company, during which the Mouser hires his services out to a mobster while Fafhrd becomes a religious acolyte in the service of an obscure god named Issek of the Jug. Leiber introduces us to Lankhmar’s Street of the Gods, a sort of spiritual free market where deities compete for popular appeal and donations of alms. Though on the surface this series may resemble Robert E. Howard’s Conan books, Leiber takes a much more tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre. “Lean Times in Lankhmar” is a great example of his ability to combine sword-clashing action with hilarious humor.

“The Cloud of Hate” and “When the Sea King’s Away,” though not masterpieces, are also good examples of Leiber’s skill with this sort of fare. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the collection’s final entry. Fully half of the book is taken up by its worst selection, a novella-length work entitled “Adept’s Gambit.” This was the earliest written of the selections, and Leiber’s sense of humor had apparently not yet fully developed. While in the other stories he pokes fun at the cliches of the fantasy genre, here he wholeheartedly embraces them. The two heroes find themselves the victims of a curse that causes every woman they kiss to turn into pigs or snails. This leads them on a quest to find the sorcerer responsible. Of course, they must gather a laundry list of mystical objects along the way. Though it starts out comical, in the end Leiber takes this one far too seriously. His prose is overly verbose, piled high with so many gratuitous adjectives that at times his writing resembles a round of Mad Libs. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser end up becoming sidekicks in their own book as one of the supporting characters goes off on an interminably long back story. “Adept’s Gambit” is a bore to be endured rather than enjoyed.

The first half of Swords in the Mist brought back some pleasant memories of a brief youthful dalliance with Dungeons & Dragons. The second half, however, reminded me why my interest in the fantasy genre did not stick. Even so, Leiber’s stories are better than most. I’m unlikely to pursue this series any further, but there will always be a soft spot in my heart for Issek of the Jug.
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Friday, September 23, 2016

Tomorrow by Eugene O’Neill



Prose from the playwright
Eugene O’Neill
“Tomorrow” is the only published short story by Eugene O’Neill, one of America’s greatest playwrights and winner of the 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature. The story first appeared in the June 1917 issue of the literary magazine The Seven Arts. Although not written for the stage, “Tomorrow” shares some common elements with the plays that made O’Neill famous: sailors, alcohol, dysfunctional relationships, and desperation. The story is narrated by a sailor named Art, who hangs out at a New York waterfront tavern known as Tommy the Priest’s. Art shares a room in a run-down boarding house with a fellow hard-luck case named Jimmy Anderson. While Art seems content with his listless, wayward life, Jimmy dreams of something bigger. He always has a plan for the future, a scheme to turn his life around, and that plan always starts “tomorrow.” Those who know Jimmy have little faith in his dreams, but they like him too much to burst his bubbles. When Jimmy scolds Art for his drinking and laziness, however, Art retaliates by chiding Jimmy for all his tomorrows that never come. When yet another of his plans falls through, Jimmy is forced to confront his own failings.

The story has an atmosphere like something out of an Ashcan School painting by John Sloan or George Bellows. The reader gets a sense of life drawn in rich blacks and muddy browns, accompanied by the smell of stale beer and cigarettes and the sounds of the wharf. In terms of literary style, it resembles the urban naturalism of Frank Norris, but with the more modern psychological acumen of a Joseph Conrad. The friendship of Art and Jimmy rings true, in both its brotherly camaraderie and its petty jealousies and resentments. “Tomorrow” may be a depressing tale, but it’s a genuinely moving one. The reader can’t help but feel for Jimmy and identify with his plight.

Although not a theatre enthusiast, I’ve always enjoyed reading O’Neill’s plays. To me, they’re like powerful realist novels that just happen to be written in the form of stage directions and dialogue. “Tomorrow” gives an inkling of what O’Neill could have done with a novel. This story reveals him to be such an accomplished prose stylist, it makes one wish he would’ve published more stories.
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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel



He sees dead people
Published in 1901, The Purple Cloud is a science fiction novel by M. P. Shiel, which is the pen name for Matthew Phipps Shiell (intentionally misspelling his own surname). H. G. Wells praised this novel as “brilliant,” but that just goes to show that even the great H. G. Wells can make mistakes, because The Purple Cloud is anything but.

Given the title and an inkling of the book’s contents, I was expecting something along the lines of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1913 novella The Poison Belt, and the plots of the two books are built upon a similar premise. The latter work is likely a derivation of Shiel’s book, watered down for popular appeal. Early on, Shiel’s narrative voice does sound remarkably similar to Conan Doyle’s, and the two share a predilection for supernatural phenomena. In the opening chapter of The Purple Cloud, Shiel constructs a convoluted set-up by which a psychic medium, while under hypnosis, astrally projects her spirit through time to read a book that was written in the future. That book is the journal of Adam Jeffson, a British doctor who joins an expedition to the North Pole. The story is awkwardly weird at first, but nevertheless quite interesting. There are hints that Jeffson’s involvement in the polar expedition is supernaturally destined, which whets the reader’s appetite for whatever strangeness may follow. The rest of the novel, however, never lives up to the promise of its opening chapters.

Jeffson’s journey to the Pole does not go as planned, and he spends more time in the arctic than he bargained for. On his return voyage, he grazes the edge of a mysterious cloud of purple gas, possibly volcanic in origin, that renders him violently ill. When he makes it far enough south to reach human civilization, he finds that the purple cloud has poisoned the entire planet, killing every human being in its path. The deadly cloud has since dispersed, allowing Jeffson to survive unscathed in this global graveyard. He then spends several chapters wandering the earth, compiling a long-winded travelog of cities filled with corpses. Adding absurdity to tedium, Shiel has Jeffson, a physician by training, unrealistically operating locomotives, large cargo ships, and power plants all by himself.

Part of the fun of post-apocalyptic science fiction is that through vicarious experience of the hero’s adventures in the future world the author has created, you can imagine what you would do if you were the last man on Earth. Once Jeffson resigns himself to the fact that he is humanity’s sole survivor, what he chooses to do with his alone time is simply ridiculous. Shiel makes a lame attempt at philosophical depth by setting up a symbolic dichotomy between black and white, good and evil, God and the devil. This spiritual conflict is too simplistic to be taken seriously and is never fully explored enough to matter. I wish I could complain about the second half of the book, which is just as annoying as the first, but to do so would be to give away the novel’s only surprise.

The Purple Cloud takes itself too seriously to be much fun, yet its attempts to be profound come across as silly. Even worse, it commits the sin of being boring. It may have been innovative for its day, but today’s readers will likely find it dull and disappointing.
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Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque by Leonide Martin



Historically authentic, but gratuitously mystic
There have been a lot of good novels written about ancient Greece and Rome, both in classic and contemporary literature. I often wonder why there hasn’t been more fiction written about ancient Mesoamerica—the Maya, the Aztecs, the Inca. So when I came across Leonide Martin’s 2013 novel The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque, I was intrigued enough to give it a try (especially since Amazon was giving the ebook away for free at the time). This is the first book of the Mists of Palenque series, in which Martin chronicles the lives of four rulers of that ancient Mayan city. I have an armchair archaeologist’s interest in the Maya and have been fortunate enough to make one trip to the ruins of Palenque, one of my favorite places on Earth. I thus approached the book with an eager interest in its subject.

Martin’s prose is polished and well-crafted, and she knows how to construct a satisfying plot. She also does a great job of thinking like a Maya and writing from that cultural perspective. Her copious research into Mayan history and culture is evident on every page. While her skills as a writer are readily apparent, I disagree with some of her creative choices. She lost me with the opening scene, in which the future Mayan queen Yohl Ik’nal uses astral projection to converse with what appears to be an Englishwoman of the 19th or 20th century (subsequent volumes may prove me wrong about the details). Isn’t the civilization of the ancient Maya fascinating enough? Does it need to be dressed up in supernatural mummery to make it more palatable to a general audience? Martin’s diligent attention to historical detail and anthropological accuracy make such mystical passages all the more glaring. Though it is necessary to show the importance of mysticism, mythology, and astrology in Mayan life, Martin treats the visions and gods as reality, even to the point where they drive the plot and thus direct the course of history.

Halfway through the book Martin inserts a flash forward to the present day in the form of an archaeologist’s journal. This new narrator describes her participation in a dig at Palenque in which the bones of Yohl Ik’nal are discovered. This device was very successful and illustrates how science can prove a more compelling narrative strategy than the supernatural. It would be great if Martin would expand on this brief interlude and construct an archaeological novel in which two plots, past and present, are intertwined.

While I admire Martin’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Maya, at times she lays on the cultural description so thick it overpowers and deadens the plot. If I wanted to read long lists of what the Maya ate, drank, or sat on, I’d rather get if from a nonfiction source like the Handbook to Ancient Life in the Maya World. She also concentrates too much on royal pageantry and religious ritual at the expense of daily life. Imagine a novel in which every day is Christmas. To some extent all the pomp and circumstance obscures the reader’s view of Mayan culture. One welcome scene involving a family of common farmers was very engaging but all too brief.

Not every reader will share my objections to this book. My preference for the secular over spiritual in historical novels is a criticism I’ve leveled at other ancient-world fictions, from Madeline Miller’s recent Hellenic novel The Song of Achilles to Lew Wallace’s classic biblical epic Ben-Hur. Decide for yourself whether that sort of thing is your cup of tea. Martin’s skills as a writer are admirable, enough so that her Palenque series will surely find its share of avid fans.
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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Second-Story Man by Upton Sinclair



Only enough time for the simplest of sob stories
Upton Sinclair
I am not a habitual reader of plays, but I do like to read the dramatic works of my favorite authors, even when they’re not renowned as great playwrights. The Second-Story Man, a one-act play by Upton Sinclair, was published in his 1911 book Plays of Protests, along with The Machine, The Naturewoman, and Prince Hagen. Of these four dramas, The Second-Story Man is by far the briefest, amounting to only about 20 minutes of stage time. Nothing that occurs during that 20 minutes will make you forget that Sinclair is first and foremost a novelist.

The phrase “second-story man” is a slang term for a burglar, as in someone who enters through a second-story window. In this case, the thief is Jim Faraday, “a roughly dressed young fellow with a patch over one eye.” In the midst of a job he encounters the married couple he is in the very process of robbing. When caught in the act, Faraday explains that he has been driven to a life of crime by poverty. The play consists almost entirely of his story, with a little bit of room left at the end for a reaction before the curtain falls. The story that Faraday relates is similar to the labor David versus capitalist Goliath theme that appears in other Sinclair works such as The Jungle, Samuel the Seeker, and Mountain City. In his novels, Sinclair is able to flesh out his stories with graphic detail and intelligent insight, which at times results in a great masterpiece of socially conscious literature. Here, however, the workers’ plight is reduced to only the barest, most simplistic narrative, resulting in a rather generic and forgettable sob story. With a broad brush, Sinclair paints Faraday’s capitalist persecutors as murderous and thieving monsters, then unrealistically asks them to feel remorse. Whatever the reason for the play’s skimpy runtime, it only allows for all but the most cursory and didactic treatment of the complex social issues in question.

Though The Second-Story Man may not have a great deal of literary merit, like all of Sinclair’s work, it does have historical and cultural value for what it tells us about the Socialist movement in America during the early 20th century. One might imagine this play being performed at a workers’ meeting in a rented hall full of folding chairs, sandwiched between the potluck dinner and the party business meeting. The one-act play is an odd format that seems to predestine dramatic works to obscurity. It’s unlikely any high school forensics team will be blowing the dust off this one anytime soon. Unlike many famous novelists (Jack London comes to mind), Sinclair is not a terrible playwright, but drama certainly isn’t his strong suit.
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Monday, September 12, 2016

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark



Lewis and Clark was a walk in the park by comparison
The Astoria Expedition of 1810 to 1813 established the first permanent (non-Native) American settlement on the Pacific Coast. The expedition was financed by wealthy New Yorker John Jacob Astor, who dreamed of monopolizing the Western fur trade and raking in billions doing business with the Chinese. Astor planned a two-pronged attack on the West Coast, with separate parties traveling by land and sea to rendezvous at the mouth of the Columbia River. Following closely on the heels of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Astoria Expedition was every bit as epic an adventure as that earlier journey. Besides a lot of historical markers on the side of Western highways, however, the story of the Astorian pioneers, while once familiar to the American public, has since faded into relative obscurity compared to the legendary status of Lewis and Clark. With his 2014 book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, author Peter Stark aims to resurrect this important story from American history and restore it to the prominence it deserves.

In many ways, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, however arduous, was an example of a trip where almost everything went right. There was only one fatality, from illness. Conflict with the Indians was minimal. They never drifted terribly far off course. The Astoria Expedition, on the other hand, is an example where just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong, for both the sea-faring party and the cross-country trekkers. Internal conflict, an ambiguous chain of command, poor decision-making or a lack thereof, faulty wilderness survival skills, undiplomatic relations with the Native population, the outbreak of the War of 1812, and more all added up to a mission impossible with a high body count. Although Lewis and Clark’s crew suffered from hunger and privation, their troubles pale in comparison to the perils encountered by the Astorians. Stark does a good job of bringing these hardships to vivid reality, but he’s always a little too ready to shift focus back to Astor in his cozy Manhattan brownstone and praise the fur baron’s vision of global domination. Stark strikes a pretty good balance between happenings on the East and West coasts, but I would have preferred a little more of the microhistory of the travelers and their survival tales, and a little less of the relentless affirmation of Astor’s importance as a pioneer of globalization.

Though several members of the Astorian land and sea parties kept diaries of the journey, there seems to be a lot less information available on this expedition than that of Lewis and Clark. Stark is forced to skip over periods of time or to resort to filling in blank spots with speculation. All historians do this to some extent, but one wishes there were a greater pool of primary source material from which to draw. Documentation was one of the primary missions of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as it had specific scientific, geographic, and diplomatic mandates to fulfill. The Astoria Expedition, on the other hand, was largely a commercial venture, and its members were primarily focused not on exploration or diplomacy but simply on the getting there. In terms of an adventure story, the Astoria trip may be the grittier and more treacherous quest, but it lacks some of the epic grandeur and Enlightenment spirit of its predecessor.

Stark’s book is an illuminating reinvestigation and compelling retelling of this important episode in America history. It’s also just a great wilderness adventure story. Anyone interested in Western expansion or the early exploration of the American continent will certainly find it an enjoyable read.
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Friday, September 9, 2016

Cousin Pons by Honoré de Balzac



From dinner guest to sacrificial lamb
Cousin Pons, originally published in 1847, is one of Honoré de Balzac’s last novels. Within his body of work known as the Comédie Humaine, Cousins Pons is the second half of a two-novel miniseries known as Poor Relations (Les Parents pauvres), the first book being Cousin Bette. Although the two books are thematically linked, they feature different characters and are not sequentially related. Cousin Pons is often hailed as one of Balzac’s greatest works. It’s definitely a skillfully crafted novel of great literary quality, but among the author’s prolific output of books I would not count it among my personal favorites.

Sylvain Pons is a musician who makes his living conducting an orchestra in a Paris theatre. He has two great passions in life, the first of which is gluttony. With a gourmand’s appreciation for fine food, he refuses to eat at home, instead making regular weekly rounds as a perpetual dinner guest in the homes of distant relations, however tenuously connected their bloodlines may be. When Pons inadvertently offends one of these relations, he becomes persona non grata among all branches of the family. His wealthier relations will no longer tolerate the freeloading visits of this poor relation.

But how poor is Cousin Pons, really?—a question that brings us to his second love: collecting paintings, knickknacks, and objets d’art. Pons has the ability to recognize masterpieces of great value and acquire them for bargain prices. When rumor of the market value of his collection gets out, everyone sets about trying to rob Pons of his priceless possessions, not by burglary but through legal maneuvering. Pons has only one true friend, Wilhelm Schmucke, a fellow musician. Together the two struggle against the rapacious vultures attempting to abscond with Pons’s fortune.

The novel has a very comical beginning, but it becomes darker and more depressing as a host of despicable characters set about preying upon these two friends. It eventually becomes a catalog of all the various means of fraud, corruption, and legal loopholes by which a dying man can be robbed of his legacy. One has to admire the intricate web of deceit Balzac spins between an ensemble cast of swindlers all angling to serve their personal interests, but at the same time it grows very tedious. Balzac loves to write in legalese. He truly revels in any opportunity to work contract law, estate law, or finance law into a story. He catalogs the exchange of each and every franc as if he were providing blow-by-blow commentary on a round of The Game of Life. While Balzac may be a genius at creating memorable characters, smart dialogue, and vivid scenes of great emotional power, you really need to ask yourself whether you want to wade through a novel that’s primarily about the myriad ways a will can be circumvented.

Amid this dreary subject matter, the one shining light is the unbreakable bond of friendship between Pons and Schmucke, who share a modern Damon and Pythias relationship that rises above all material concerns. The platonic love between these two eccentric bachelors is the saving grace that imbues what could have been a mean-spirited melodrama with an inspirational sense of humanity. As previously stated, this isn’t one of my favorite Balzac books, but it’s still a notable literary achievement with powerful moral lessons to impart.
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